Revisiting Matthew Shepard's Murder

An editor at the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune offers a look behind the scenes at reporting the murder of Matthew Shepard and covering its tenth anniversary.

Editor's note: On October 12th, 1998, a young gay University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard was pronounced dead after being brutally beaten and left tied to a fence. Ten years ago, Kerry Drake reported the Shepard story for the Casper Star-Tribune; This year, as the Star-Tribune's opinion editor, he shaped the paper's anniversary coverage. Drake offered to share his inside perspective on both, and how the intervening decade changed both a newspaper and its community.

The 10th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyo., marked the first time the Casper Star-Tribune staff collectively looked back and examined its coverage of the tragedy. I was our lead reporter on the story, simply because I was based at the Capitol in Cheyenne and Laramie, 45 miles away, was part of my beat. Our new editor, Chad Baldwin, who took over the paper a few months ago, is a native of Wyoming and is well acquainted with the story. He realizes it's one of the biggest crime stories ever to happen in the state, in no small part because of all the attention it received throughout the world.

Chad asked me to be part of the anniversary coverage team. Originally, we were planning a week-long series, beginning Oct. 7, the day Matthew was attacked, and ending Oct. 12, when he died at a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital. But while we knew there was no shortage of issues to sustain six straight days of stories, we wondered if our readers would consider it appropriate. We were sensitive to the issue, because 10 years ago some of our readers had expressed frustration with our coverage, in that so much attention was paid to one person's death. They particularly called our attention to the murder of a young Powell girl at about the same time who was kidnapped from her trailer. Her body was later discovered in the town landfill. While the murder received a lot of coverage, it paled in comparison to what we wrote about Matthew's death and what happened to his killers.

The Shepard story was even controversial in our newsroom on the day it happened. I was called by my state editor in the afternoon to cover a hastily called press conference in Laramie. The only thing I knew when I left Cheyenne was that it allegedly involved a hate crime.

At the press conference, the sheriff announced that Russell Henderson, Kristen Price and Chastity Pasley had been arrested in connection with the beating of a University of Wyoming student. That was the first time I heard Matthew Shepard's name. The sheriff said other people might also be arrested (the next day, police obtained a confession from Aaron McKinney). The sheriff indicated that his office was looking at the attack as a possible hate crime, because Matthew was gay.

As I gathered information and interviewed some of Matthew's friends, I didn't realize that back in the Star-Tribune's office in Casper, about 180 miles to the north, a debate was ensuing about how to play the story. Members of the state desk, including Deirdre Stoelzle of the Dart Society, were adamant that the story belonged on the front page. But our editor wasn't so sure. He argued that it still wasn't certain that the incident was a hate crime, and we should treat it like we would any other attack, and play it on the state page. Technically, he was right about one thing: Wyoming didn't have a hate crime law, and in fact still doesn't. But it quickly became apparent that this attack was particularly brutal. Matthew had been beaten severely with a pistol, tied to a fence and left for dead in near freezing temperatures for 18 hours before he was discovered by a bicyclist.

(The position of Matthew's body, by the way, is one of the "facts" of the case that is actually based on a myth. As court testimony later revealed, he was tied to the fence near the ground. The bicyclist originally told deputies that he had mistaken the young man for a scarecrow—a fact we all dutifully reported. But people saw the word and pictured a scarecrow standing upright in a field, arms outstretched like Jesus Christ—and that's how they remember Matthew.)

Ten years ago, in Wyoming at least, it wasn't common in newspaper stories to mention someone's sexual orientation unless it was pertinent to the article. At the time of the initial story, our editor felt we still didn't know how relevant the victim's being gay actually was to the story. In the end, we ran my story about the arrests on the front page, but below the fold. We mentioned the hate crime angle, but it took a few paragraphs to get to it. Friends of Matthew who had alerted the media from here to Denver about the crime were quoted saying there was no doubt that Matthew was targeted because he was gay. As it turned out, they were right.

For the 10th anniversary, we decided to split our coverage into two days, Oct. 7 and 12. The first day we ran a story about the last person to talk with Matthew before the attack, and the bicyclist who found him. We also interviewed his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who talked about their great loss. Our coverage of the anniversary of Matthew's death included a look at how gay, lesbian and transgendered students are now treated at the University of Wyoming.

In a column, Chad let readers know that if anyone didn't think the murder merited such special coverage, they would get an argument from him.

We wondered what kind of reaction we would get. After all, Wyoming is still a very conservative state, and some people still routinely object to any coverage of gay issues. But except for one caller who complained that the stories of Oct. 7 demonstrated our support for "the queer lifestyle," the response was overwhelmingly positive.

At least in one important area, Wyoming residents seem to have learned to be more tolerant of others in the past decade.